“This is the monstruosity in love, lady: that the will is infinite, and the execution confined: that the desire is boundless, and the act a slave to limit.”

Troilus and Cressida

Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


Act Three:  Pandarus has finally arranged a meeting between Troilus and Cressida, but Bamber_troilusdoesn’t exactly leave them alone. Initially nervous, the couple make a vow of mutual constancy before heading for the bedroom – unaware that Cressida’s father, the defector Calchas, has arranged for his daughter to be ransomed for the Trojan prisoner Antenor. As Ajax prepares for the fight, the other Greek commanders give Achilles the cold-shoulder and Ulysses explains to him that his reputation, sadly, is in decline.


Thersites’ analysis of the root of the Trojan War “whore and cuckold” would probably have little force, given his self-description as “a rascal, a scurvy railing knave, a very filthy rogue,” were it not for the fact that when we actually get to see Paris and Helen together, as Pandarus tries somewhat ham-fistedly to prepare the ground for Troilus and Cressida, it becomes only too obvious that there is nothing even remotely noble about their relationship. While Helen acts the part of the skittish school girl, petulantly demanding attention – and Pandarus is ordered to sing a grimly obscene song to amuse the court – Paris muses, to the best of his obviously shallow abilities, on some insights into love. Troilus “eats nothing but doves, love,” he nudgingly informs Helen,

and that breeds hot blood, and hot blood begets hot thoughts, and hot thoughts beget hot deeds, and hot deeds is love.

Every bit as obsessed with the body as Diomedes (or almost any of the other play’s male characters), Paris regards love and lust as entirely interchangeable. Maybe Thersites IS right: in Troilus and Cressida, there is little to show for so much sacrifice. Blood – the blood of war as much as what Hector calls the “distempered blood” of passion – is much of what the play is about.

Paris though is not the only one of Shakespeare’s to prove a disappointment – the play’s subplot rests upon a tawdry attempt to undermine Achilles, the Greek’s greatest warrior but so completely and insufferably arrogant that his compatriots Ulysses and Nestor agree to teach him a lesson. When the Trojan Hector sends a challenge to the Greeks to single combat, they deliberately exclude him from the competition and support the “blockish” (I love that description) Ajax instead, hoping to goad Achilles in the process.

But enough about that (we’ll get to the results of that in Act Four) – the issues that crowd the relationship between Paris and Helen – and which also touch upon Hector’s macho scorn for his wife Andromache – do not bode well for the play’s pivotal love affair. On hold for what seems like an eternity, by the time Troilus and Cressida FINALLY manage to meet, over halfway into the play (which seems to show Shakespeare’s less than strong interest in the lovers), the tension between them is embarrassingly painful.  Waiting (yet again) for Cressida to arrive at their assignation, Troilus cannot stop thinking about death, comparing himself to “a strange soul upon the Stygian banks/Staying for waftage.” When Cressida finally does appear, the couple seem unable to find the right things to say, let alone understand what the other is thinking. Troilus exclaims, “You have bereft me of all words, lady,” and the confusion between them does not dissipate:

Cressida:  Will you walk in, my lord?

Troilus: O Cressida, how often have I wished me thus.

Cressida: Wished, my lord? The gods grant – O, my lord!

Troilus: What should they grant? What makes this pretty abruption? What too-curious dreg espies my sweet lady in the fountain of our love?

Cressida: More dregs than water, if my fears have eyes.

Cressida’s first words can – and certainly have – been interpreted in any number of interesting ways, and acted in just as many. Her “will you walk in?” sounds very much like a prostitute calling to her client, but it could just as easily be a plea to escape from the omnipresent Pandarus, who, as always, is doing his utmost to ruin the occasion by hanging around and making leering wisecracks. (the word “pander,” meaning “pimp,” is rooted in his name).

The point is that, as so often, Shakespeare leaves the meaning open-ended, just as he leaves Cressida’s character open to diametrically opposed interpretations. She has been characterized (usually by male critics, perhaps not surprisingly) as a sex-hungry vixen; as an emblem of female independence in a misogynistic world; and as someone who is betrayed by actions and forces over which she has no control. Though Cressida seems clear-eyed about the difficulties surrounding their relationship – far more so than Troilus, who is content to trot out the usual patronizing clichés about the “fountain of our love” – just a few lines later she is fumbling to explain why she played so hard to get for so long:

But though I loved you well, I wooed you not –

And yet, good faith, I wished myself a man,

Or that we women had men’s privilege

Of speaking first. Sweet, bid me hold my tongue,

For in this rapture I shall surely speak

The thing I shall repent.

Cressida’s fear that her words will betray her is a haunting pre-echo of the play’s conclusion, further intensified by the vows that the lovers take almost immediately afterwards. While Troilus swears, somewhat awkwardly, that he will be “as true as truth’s simplicity,/And simpler than the infancy of truth,” Cressida rushes to seal her side of the bargain:

If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,

When time is old and hath forgot itself,

When water drops have worn the stones of Troy

And blind oblivion swallowed cities up,

And mighty states characterless are grated

To dusty nothing,  yet let memory

From false to false among false maids in love

Upbraid my falsehood. When they’ve said, ‘as false

As air, as water, wind or salty earth,

As fox to lamb, or wolf to heifer’s calf,

Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son,’

Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,

‘As false as Cressid.’

People did say “as true as Troilus” in the Renaissance, just as they did “as false as Cressida”; the lovers confront the historical aftershocks of their actions without realizing it. The dramatic irony here is so extreme as to bitterly absurd.  While Chaucer’s Criseyde frets that her behavior towards Troilus will ruin not only her reputation but that of women everywhere, Shakespeare’s Cressida blindly ensnares herself without even knowing it. Far from being a perfect relationship cruelly broken off by fate – as Chaucer and others told it – in this play it seems doomed and stillborn from the start.


From Goddard:

“Achilles is revealed early in the play inactive in his tent, having withdrawn from the fighting against Troy. By common consent, he is the most redoubtable warrior on the Greek side. But what of it, says Agamemnon –

A stirring dwarf we do allowance give

Before a sleeping giant.

Ulysses announces that Achilles will not go to the field tomorrow.

Agam:  What’s his excuse?

Ulyss:     He doth rely on none.

‘You may call it melancholy, if you favour the man,’ says Ajax, anticipating Bradley’s diagnosis of Hamlet’s inaction, ‘but, by my head, ‘tis pride.’ Ulysses concurs in this amendment, and describes the ailment as a self-inflation that has precipitated a civil war ‘’twixt his mental and his active parts.’

My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr’d;

And I myself see not the bottom of it,

Achilles himself declares in an accent so unmistakably Hamletian that the couplet could be inserted at a dozen places in the Prince of Denmark’s role and deceive everyone but the scholar or close student of the text.

What is the trouble with this melancholy and inactive man? Unless all Shakespearean auspices fail, he must be, as Ulysses suggests, the victim of a divided self, though Ulysses’ reason for the division, pride may be far from getting to the bottom of the matter. And such indeed proves to be the case when, on looking closely, we discover – of all things – that this mighty hero is in the same situation as Romeo! He is in love with a daughter of his enemy, Polyxena, child of Priam, sister of Hector, who is the Achilles of the Trojans. As in the case of Romeo, love put him out of love with violence:

What! comes the general to speak with me?

You know my mind: I’ll fight no more ‘gainst Troy.

It is like Romeo refusing to fight Tybalt. The different tempers of the two plays make the comparison seem grotesque.  [MY NOTE:  Yes, it does.]  Is Shakespeare here burlesquing his own youth and the absurdities of romantic love? There are those who would have us ajaxthink so. The incident is passed over so swiftly that it is perhaps impossible to be certain what Shakespeare did intend. But the play is so saturated with situations where one touch of nature, if granted its way against the conventions of war, might have brought Greeks and Trojans together that it is hard not to feel that this is one of them. We do not condemn Romeo for preferring Juliet to his hereditary quarrel. Why do we condemn Achilles for preferring Polyxena to the Trojan War? At the very least Shakespeare compels us to ask that question.

Fall Greeks; fail fame; honour or go or stay;

My major vow lies here, this I’ll obey.

The origin of the Capulet-Montague feud we do not know, but it could have been no more ignominious than the cause of the Trojan War, and even so great a hero as Hector considers that war’s continuation an offense against the moral laws of both nature and nations.  Over the centuries those impressed into armies have generally been in no position to utter their convictions on the relative value of love and war. But Hector and Achilles are great heroes and can speak their minds. The nature of Achilles’ feeling for Polyxena we cannot be sure of, but that it may have been genuine love can be believed if for no other reason than Achilles’ lines about the human eye, in which Shakespeare endows him with poetic perception akin to his own:

The beauty that is born here in the face

The bearer knows not, but commends itself

To others’ eyes; nor doth the eye itself,

That most pure spirit of sense, behold itself,

Not going from itself; but eye to eye oppos’d

Salutes each other with each other’s form;

For speculation turns not to itself,

Till it hath travell’d and is mirror’d there

Where it may see itself.

[MY NOTE:  Once again, falling in love through the eyes, through vision…]

The speaker of these lines was capable of love and was made for something nobler than the vocation of making eyes close forever. Where love crosses the battle lines there is always a seed of peace. If it was love in this instance, Ulysses was on guard to see to it that the seed did not germinate, and the end was to be, not tragedy as in the case of Romeo, but ignominy.

Heat and cold are sometimes extremes that meet. Mercutio’s hot blood was the undoing of Romeo. Ulysses’ cold blood is the undoing of Achilles. And what a saint in comparison Mercutio seems! Ulysses perceives that Achilles’ Achilles heel is pride, and enlisting all the Greek chieftains, and specifically the unspeakable Ajax, as his tools, he proceeds, if I may use so odd a metaphor, to lay siege to it. It is exactly as if the dramatic deep-plotting Hamlet had conspired against the proud and melancholy Hamlet. And, characteristically, his opening move is a play within a play. He causes the Greek chieftains to march past Achilles’ tent with ‘negligent and loose regard.’ ‘What means these fellows?’ cries Achilles, taking the bait. ‘Know they not Achilles?’ And stung by their derision he goes on:

What, am I poor of late?

‘Tis certain, greatness, once fall’n out with fortune,

Must fall out with men too: what the declin’d is

He shall as soon read in the eyes of others

As feel in his own fall; for men, like butterflies,

Show not their mealy wings but to the summer,

And not a man, for simply being simply man,

Hath any honour, but honour for those honours

That are without him, as place, riches, and favour,

Prizes of accident as oft as merit.

From how much closer to Shakespeare’s heart this comes than Ulysses’ disquisition on degree a dozen of the Sonnets attest, and none more than the 25th:

Let those who are in favour with their stars

Of public honour and proud titles boast.

That sonnet is nothing but a paraphrase of Achilles, or more likely, Achilles a paraphrase of it, down even to the companion metaphors of the butterfly and the flower.

…men, like butterflies,

Show not their mealy wings but to the summer

says Achilles.

Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread

But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,

says Shakespeare. The sonnet tells us just what Shakespeare thought of the relative value of love and ‘honour’:

Then happy I, that love and am belov’d

Where I may not remove nor be remov’d.

But Achilles, fatally, thought he was an exception to his own rule:

     But ‘tis not so with me;

Fortune and I are friends,

and this conceit renders him the more susceptible to Ulysses’ seductions when the latter, exactly like Hamlet, enters reading a book. The conversation that ensues gives us a hundred and more of the most wonderful lines in Shakespeare. The sincerity and beauty of 220px-Leon_Benouville_The_Wrath_of_AchillesAchilles’ tribute to the human eye – already quoted – seem to ‘communicate his parts’ to Ulysses, whose reply sounds as if it were Achilles himself speaking, with Ulysses’ lips, lines that read like a continuation of his own. Then Ulysses relapses for a moment into his crafty self, and, in words that seem to refer only to Ajax, he exposes the mainspring of his own plot against Achilles:

How one man eats into another’s pride,

While pride is fasting in his wantonness!

‘I do believe it,’ cries Achilles, stepping into the trap,

    for they pass’d by me

As misers do by beggars, neither gave to me

Good word or look. What, are my deeds forgot?

— whereupon Ulysses launches into his justly famous speech on the voraciousness of time:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,

Wherein he puts alms for oblivion…

which, again, might be an amplification of four lines of that same 25th sonnet:

The painful warrior famoused for fight,

After a thousand victories once foil’d,

Is from the book of honour razed quite,

And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d.

The speech on time seems like the last word of Ulysses’ wisdom. But he surpasses it a moment later in the one on ‘the soul of state,’ which possibly comes closer to anything else in the poet’s works to revealing the secret of Shakespeare’s own inspiration. Achilles is filled with consternation on discovering that Ulysses knows all about his love for Polyxena:

Ulysses:  ‘Tis known, Achilles, that you are in love

               With one of Priam’s daughters.

Achilles:   Ha! known!

Ulysses:   Is that a wonder?

And Ulysses continues in words that are a wonder:

The providence that’s in a watchful state

Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,

Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps,

Keeps place with thought, and almost, like the gods,

Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.

There is a mystery – with whom relation

Durst never meddle – in the soul of state;

Which hath an operation more divine

Than breath or pen can give expressure to.

(Everyone will see that ‘providence’ signifies foresight, but not everyone that “state” hear means: a static, perfectly tranquil condition.)

The inevitable first reaction to this speech is: ‘Out of character!’ Such mystic insight seems out of the reach of the crafty Ulysses. But Shakespeare has given too many of his characters one such uncharacteristic speech for us not to know what this one means. Like the apostrophe to sleep of Henry IV (whom Ulysses in some ways resembles), it is a measure of what this man might have been. How far he is from being it is shown when, the next moment, he proceeds to use the almost divine wisdom he has just uttered to ensnare the very man who had in a sense inspired it. It is like a change of key in music:

All the commerce that you have had with Troy

As perfectly is ours as yours, my lord;

And better would it fit Achilles much

To throw down Hector than Polyxena.

But it must grieve young Pyrrhus now at home,

When fame shall in our island sound her trump,

And all the Greekish girls shall tripping sing,

‘Great Hector’s sister did Achilles win,

But our great Ajax bravely beat down him.’

Farewell, my lord: I as your lover speak.

The fool slides o’er the ice that you should break.

Exit Ulysses, as the mousetrap springs, the stage direction might have been expanded into, for he leaves Achilles as securely caught in the toils of his pride as Claudius was in those of his guilt. Patroclus adds his word, bidding Achilles rouse himself and let love be shaken from him ‘like a dewdrop from the lion’s mane.’

Achilles:  Shall Ajax fight with Hector?

Patroclus: Ay, and perhaps receive much honour by him.

Achilles:  I see my reputation is at stake;

            My fame is shrewdly gor’d.

Honor, fame, reputation! Like Romeo, like Hal, like Brutus, like Hamlet, Achilles cannot resist, as they in their various ways could not, the power of the fathers, of custom, of renown, of glory, as the case may be. But he has not yet decided. He will send word to the Trojan lords to come to his tent unarmed after the combat between Ajax and Hector:

   I have a woman’s longing

An appetite that I am sick withal,

To see great Hector in his weeds of peace,

To talk with him and to behold his visage,

Even to my full of view.

Thersites enters and regales the two friends with an account of Ajax’ peacock struttings at his new honor as Greek champion, and Thersites and Patroclus put on a little play, ‘the pageant of Ajax,’ which reminds us of Falstaff and Hal in the tavern, Patroclus impersonating Thersites and Thersites Ajax. But Achilles’ mind is only partly on the fun, for it is just as he goes out that he utters that unforgettable couplet:

My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr’d;;

And I myself see not the bottom of it.

Where, earlier in the same scene, did we hear that word ‘bottom?’

Find bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps.

(3.3.207), Ulysses to Achilles

It is one of Shakespeare’s incomparable echoes which reveal the uncomprehensive deeps of his characters and which we miss at our peril; the same metaphor, then of a clear, now of a muddied, fountain. It tells us infallibly who and what is troubling Achilles’ mind, and how close, here as elsewhere, this play which has been various called ‘history,’ ‘comedy,’ and ‘satire,’ steers toward tragedy.

‘Would the fountain of your mind were clear again,’ says Thersites, taking up the metaphor as Achilles goes out, ‘that I might water an ass at it!’ We know what sort of man Thersites is. But what sort of man is this Ulysses who

almost, like the gods,

Does thoughts unveil

only to use them to tempt like a devil? ‘All other knowledge is hurtful,’ says Montaigne, ‘to him who has not the science of honesty and goodness.’ Shakespeare might have created Ulysses expressly to bring home that truth. Whoever prostitutes wisdom and knowledge to ends of dissension is a Ulysses.

It is from this man’s own lips that we first catch this theme, in the scene before Agamemnon’s tent in the first act. The physical champions and their satellites, he complains, do not appreciate the part that the brain, or, as he calls it, wisdom, plays in war:

They tax our policy, and call it cowardice,

Count wisdom as no member of the war,

Forestall prescience, and esteem no act

But that of hand. The still and mental parts,

That do contrive how many hands shall strike

When fitness calls them on, and know by measure

Of their observant toil the enemies’ weight, —

Why, this hath not a finger’s dignity.

They call this bed-work, mapp’ry, closet-war;

So that the ram that batters down the wall,

For the great swing and rudeness of his poise,

They place before his hand that made the engine,

Or those that with the fineness of their souls

By reason guide his execution.

Modern war, it is a truism to remark, is primarily characterized by an immense development of this Ulyssean element. Not just strategy and diplomacy, but science, administration, the harnessing of industry, all the ten thousand activities behind the battle line that brains control, are a development of these ‘still and mental parts’ of which he speaks. And so Ulysses becomes a prophetic symbol. By sheer intellect he hurls Achilles back into the battle. That which lets loose force is itself a form of force.  Pure intellect, Shakespeare seems to be saying, mind divorced from virtue, no matter how covertly or circuitously, always lends itself, as here, to envy and destruction. Derision, disdain, scorn, contempt, craft, satire, sarcasm, condescension: these are at once its marks and weapons. Ulysses was a master of all of them…Intellect obviously must have arisen from an attempt of the physically weak to outwit or destroy the physically strong. Later, made the slave of higher faculties, it became a servant of unparalleled power and beneficence. But it is always likely to revert and reassert its autonomy…From Pandolph and Richard III on, Shakespeare is full of this idea. Most of his Commodity-servers, all his plotters and politicians, illustrate it in some say. Machiavelli’s The Prince is their political New Testament. The stage Machiavel is the idea reduced to a type. Ulysses, if we try to place him, might be put about halfway between Henry IV and Iago. He who begins by tracing the Greek failure to factions and quarrels among themselves ends by fomenting just such envy among them.”

And this continuation from Tanner:

“After this putting side of ‘truth’ [MY NOTE:  In Hector’s Act Two speech], it perhaps not surprising that things and people are no longer regarded as ‘precious of themselves’ but only in the eye of the ‘prizer’ or appraiser.  There is much discussion – centered on Achilles who hopes to keep his fame while refusing to fight – as to the extent to which fame and value are essentially reflective. A man, says Ulysses:

Cannot make boast to have that which he hath

Nor feels not what he owed but by reflection…

Achilles takes the point:

     What the declined is

He shall as soon read in the eyes of others

As feel in his own fall…

This means, of course, a complete externalization of value – it is completely in the eye of the beholder, and for that eye to confer or withhold. And, indeed, an ephemeralization of value – ‘The present eye praises the present object.’ It is as if nothing (no one) can any longer be something (someone) in and for itself. Through time. No wonder they are all winnowed away. Ulysses comments to Achilles:

     Nature, what things there are

Most object in regard and dear in use!

What things again most dear in the esteem

And poor in worth…

Abject, poor, dear – worth, esteem, use: this is the shifting value-lexicon of the play. At one end of the spectrum there is a lot of merchant talk (particularly among the Greeks) using terms concerned with prices, weights, measures – scruples, little characters, ounces, counters, spans, inches, fractions, orts, etc. At the other end, there is a more metaphysical language of truth and honour, but the language is as terribly under siege as Troy itself, and even sooner to be undermined. When Cressida is handed over to the Greeks, Troilus urges and warns Diomedes to value her in absolute, soaring terms. Diomedes replies: ‘I’ll answer to my lust…To her own worth/She shall be prized.’ Once she is surrounded and seriously kissed by the merchant-macho Greek ‘prizers (hints of a gang rape there), we can imagine what the ‘worth’ will be, and how it will be esteemed. Diomedes will answer to his lust. Ominous.”


And finally, Bloom:

“Shakespeare also emulates Chaucer in his characters’ self-awareness of their role in literary history, but the dramatic effect, as contrasted with Chaucer’s narrative cunning, is TC-1201very curious, and makes us wonder just how Shakespeare apprehended his own play. Probably, we are still in the afterglow of Hamlet, with its audacious theatricality, particularly in the scene where Hamlet greets the players and suddenly thrusts us into the War of the Theaters. How ought a director to handle this?


O virtuous fight,

When right with right wars who shall be most right!

True swains in love shall, in the world to come,

Approve their truth by Troilus, when their rhymes,

Full of protest, of oath, and big compare,

Wants similies, truth tir’d with iteration

(As true as steel, as plantage to the moon,

As sun to day, as turtle to her mate,

As iron to adamant, as earth to th’centre)

Yet, after all comparisons of truth,

As truth’s authentic author to be cited,

‘As true as Troilus’ shall crown up the verse

And sanctify the numbers.


Prophet may you be!

If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,

When time is old and hath forgot itself,

When water-drops have worn the stones of Troy,

And blind oblivion swallow’d cities up,

And mighty states characterless are grated

To dusty nothing – yet let memory,

From false to false, among false maids in love,

Upbraid my falsehood. When they’ve said ‘As false

As air, as water, wind, or sandy earth,

As fox to lamb, or wolf to heifer’s calf,

Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son’ –

Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,

‘As false as Cressid.’


Go to, a bargain made: seal it, seal it, I’ll be the witness. Here I hold your hand, here my cousin’s. If ever you prove false one to another, since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world’s end after my name: call them all Pandars: let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between Pandars. Say ‘Amen.’

‘Amen’ to pandars ever since, even if we do not find it worthwhile to equate Troilus with constancy and Cressida with false women. Shakespeare has stopped his play’s action (such as it is) and raised our consciousness of his (and our) debt to Chaucer. Not pathos but self-estrangement is conveyed by this tableau. Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus see themselves as players in a famous story, with much notoriety still to come. The effect is pandarus1neither comic nor satiric, and probably a director ought to advise the actors to play this scene quite straightforwardly, as if their characters were unaware that they are affirming their own artificiality. Shakespeare has prepared us for this dramatic freedom from self-consciousness earlier in the scene, particularly by creating an extraordinary gap between the remarkable observations made both by Troilus and Cressida and their palpable lack of the cognitive and emotional powers, which make such eloquent insights possible. In context, we are astonished that these greedy lovers can utter what is so powerful out of context:


This is the monstruosity in love, lady: that the will is infinite, and the execution confined: that the desire is boundless, and the act a slave to limit.


They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform: vowing more than the perfection of ten, and discharging less than the tenth part of one.

Who, in or out of love, ever can forget “that the will is infinite, and the execution confined: that the desire is boundless, and the act a slave to limit?’ I have a preternatural memory, for Shakespeare in particular, but rarely can identify Troilus as the speaker of this mordant observation. ‘Will’ here also means ‘lust,’ and to the playwright had to be self-referential, as when he puns upon his name “Will” in the Sonnets.”


How’s everybody doing with Troilus and Cressida?  Questions?  Observations?  Remarks?  Please share with the group!

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning, more on Act Three

Enjoy…and enjoy your weekend.

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